Perfection meant doing everything exactly the way Mother wanted.
“You have to clean this like me. Why do you not do it like me?”
“You look so dark. You have to be pretty, so stop being out in the sun so much.”
“When you go to dinner, make sure you say ______, so that your uncle can laugh and be happy.”
When I followed Mother’s instructions, I received praise, not only from her but also the people Mother wanted me to please, perhaps for her own praise.
“Good, you are such an obedient daughter.”
“See? Now that you have stayed out of the sun for a few months, you look pretty with light skin. ”
“(My uncle speaking to me) What a smart girl! (talking to Mother) You must be so proud that you raised such a charming and intelligent daughter.”
I grew up believing that I needed to follow Mother’s rules and instructions to be accepted. To be loved. But no matter how much I reveled in the amount of praise, the instructions constantly felt like accusations that I was inadequate and imperfect – flawed, even. To hide my feelings of inadequacy, I would put up a front: I made sure I was happy and bubbly in front of everyone else that Mother wanted me to present myself to, but I would be withdrawn at home, a blank and colorless slate once again. I felt I had no voice or role or personality outside of who Mother wanted me to be. Every time I put on my mask outside the home, I became an actress. I knew my lines, I knew how to deliver them, and I knew how to wrap up the show so that I could give the spotlight back to Mother, the mastermind behind my acting and script. Every day, I craved the praise I received from Mother and others, yet I’d return home after my act completely empty, wanting to be filled again.
Mother’s words showed me enough how I was supposed to live to be perfect, without flaws, just the way she wanted me to be. After all, she didn’t give up her entire life and her livelihood in another country to come to the United States and have an imperfect daughter; she wasn’t going to settle for that and accept it, just as she has had to with every other aspect of her life. Therefore, I couldn’t mess up. If I were perfect, she would be validated in her sacrifices, disappointments, and failures, and I would be living proof that everything was worth it.
It’s no wonder that it was so easy for me to also put on my mask and become an actress when I met God, when I found a seat at God’s table. I wanted to be the perfect Christian who followed all the rules; Mother taught me well enough, so I simply had to continue the act, now under the identity label “Christian.” But when God called me to take off my mask and lay it down at His feet, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had nothing else to show for my life thus far except for the blank and colorless slate behind the mask. Who was I behind the mask? Would God be satisfied with what He saw? What script would I follow now that I had a new master? What did I have to give now?
There was a moment, in my desperation to find solace in God’s word, when I flipped open the Bible to a random page to see if there was anything that God could speak to me and share with me to help me face the world and myself at the same time. It felt silly to say a quick prayer and flip open my Bible to a random page, but I had nowhere else to turn and nothing else to guide me in my search for answers. I landed on the following verse.
2 Kings 4:2
“Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a little oil.”
In this passage, Elisha speaks to the wife of a dead prophet who needed to repay the debt of the creditor who was coming to take her two boys as slaves. She had nothing else to give, besides a little oil. Elisha then told her to ask around for empty jars to fill. After gathering the empty jars and going into an empty room to fill the jars, the widow had an endless outpouring of oil, to the point where she had no more jars to fill.
When she thought she had nothing to give, she received everything she needed. With a little bit of oil, she filled more than enough jars to fulfill her needs.
I prayed to God that night: Your servant has nothing there at all. Nothing beneath the mask. Except maybe a little faith. Faith that things could be different without the mask. Faith that things could be a little better. Faith that I could be loved and accepted just the way that I am, no strings attached and no mask needed. Faith that there is a life of freedom waiting for me when I set my mask down. God help me to be free. Help me to trust in the little faith that I have in the life-giving and fulfilling future you have planned for me.
That little bit of faith carried me through the years as I discovered more of who I was separate from my mother’s desires, expectations, and instructions for me to be perfect. Sometimes, I still want to put on that mask and be an actress, out of habit and out of a selfish craving for praise and validation. Sometimes I still feel that people won’t recognize me or love me if I don’t have that mask on. It has taken time for me to feel brave while baring my skin, and it has taken even longer for me to believe that my skin beneath the mask was more beautiful and worth sharing with the world than the mask that I’ve co-created with my mother.
As an adult, I find myself still caught off guard by my mother’s requests for me to do things her way, to say things exactly the way she’d want me to. It’s taken courage for me to say no to my mother or to walk away and come back to conversations only when I’m ready at a later time. It’s taken courage for me to be called “disobedient” or “unpretty” by my mother after my small acts of defiance. When I think about my mother and what she sees in me now, I wonder if she’d prefer me with my mask on. I wonder if she’d prefer the perfect daughter still. But I still have my little faith that has sustained me thus far, the little faith that God has much much more life-giving and joyful things ahead for me once I no longer have to live under my mother’s standards of perfection. And I pray that the little faith I have and God’s abundant faithfulness will help me be free to be the imperfect me.
About the Author
Cindy is an aspiring mental health counselor studying at Teachers College, Columbia University. She was an English teacher who taught 12th grade newcomer immigrant students for two years. These wonderful students taught her the importance of mental health, self-care, and self-love, so she sometimes writes about those lessons and moments, among other things. She also loves ginger beer and Korean food.